What do people want to make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we be doing differently?
These are simple questions. Sometimes, we mistake them as trivial or think that we already know the answers. When I led a water and sanitation programme in Malawi I believed that people in Malawi needed clean water. I believed I could help them get it by helping local governments build their capacity to construct and repair water infrastructure. I saw plenty of evidence that what I was offering matched what was needed and wanted. I knew about confirmation bias, knew that communities and local government officials were likely to praise my programme rather than risk losing free support, but I believed that I had strong enough relationships to be hearing the truth.
Perhaps I was on the right track. But the fact remains that not once in 5 years did I truly open up my strategy to the people I was trying to help. Not once did I give them a chance to tell me it wasn’t clean water that they needed, but something else entirely. I asked for feedback, I sought out input, but within the bounds of decisions I had already made about the programme’s focus.
That’s not unusual. When civil society organisations ask for feedback from the people they serve it’s often about how we’re doing our work, not about what goals we’re aiming for. Gathering feedback on how we deliver our services is essential; so is asking for feedback on what we deliver.
At Feedback Labs, we believe that asking those three questions of the people we seek to serve – asking and then listening and responding to what we hear – is one of the most disruptive actions that civil society can take. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. It means sharing some of the power that we have, as experts, professionals, and decision-makers over resources, with the people we seek to serve. That doesn’t mean giving up or ignoring our own expertise or perspectives. Rather, these three questions are the start of a conversation, an invitation to a critical dialogue between civil society organisations and the people they seek to serve. What do people want to make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we be doing differently?
I believe that asking these three questions is essential for civil society to navigate a changing landscape. At the civil society sessions at the 4th Global Summit of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) held late last year, the topic on everyone’s lips was the shrinking civic space in countries around the globe. There are many factors contributing to that phenomenon, and many strategies for civil society organisations to deploy. I believe that asking people what they want and what we can do differently to help them get it is one powerful way to demonstrate the centrality of civil society to people’s lives.
How do you do that? Innovators across the Feedback Labs network are figuring out how you cannot just collect and analyse feedback, but course-correct based on what you hear, in all kinds of contexts. You can learn more about the practices and the tools they use. You can join them in collective problem-solving sessions. You can meet them at this year’s Feedback Summit. And most of all, you can put at the heart of your own work, three simple questions: What do people want to make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we be doing differently?